Leather is an irreplaceable material

29 June 2001

The major 'leather' contribution at the seminar was made in a presentation by Andres Galperin, senior vice president-marketing and sales with Sadesa. This Argentinian tannery group are one of the major global players, producing some 14 million ft² of leather monthly, mainly for footwear. Advanced and technical leathers are a significant part of production. US footwear brands are important customers of Sadesa and as their shoes are mostly produced in Asia, the company have been following a relocation programme in an effort to shorten lead times, reduce work-in-progress and generally be closer to their customers. This has seen the company open two tanneries in Thailand in the last two years, giving them a monthly capacity of three million ft², with a third tannery targeted to open in China this June. Sadesa's move into Asia, particularly China, has been paralleled by many other Western tanners, closing the gap between the amount of leather consumed and produced in the region. At present, Asia produces 52% of global output while consuming 62%, making it a net importer. Interestingly, according to Mr Galperin, China is the only country which has really increased its leather output in recent years. Other major producers such as Italy, India and Korea have remained essentially static. Over the past decade, leather availability increased by 14% and, it is estimated, will grow by 18% this decade. But for the present Mr Galperin estimates the global market for leather as 19 billion ft² annually worth US$42 billion. 64% is bovine, 16% is sheep, 11% is pig and 8% is goat. Significantly, no one supplier controls more than 1.5% of the market although some consolidation in production is taking place. The traditional use for leather is footwear and this is still estimated to account for 65% of availability. But leather usage has changed dramatically in the last decade with upholstery, both residential and automotive, now the fastest growing sector accounting for 13% of availability. Clothing takes 11% and personal leathergoods 9%. Looking just at bovine leather, availability is some 12 billion ft² annually and footwear takes 57% followed by upholstery at 20% and apparel and leathergoods at 23%. Indications are that the auto upholstery market for leather is increasing at 9% per year while the glove market is increasing at 2-3% and footwear at 1-2%. Mr Galperin said leather was classed as a flexible sheet material. Other substances which fell into this broad description included textiles, paper, sheet rubber and certain plastics. But why did leather stand out from the rest? Quite simply because it possessed unique functional and aesthetic properties unmatched in combination in any other material. Physical properties included high tensile strength, high tear strength, variable elongation over a wide temperature range, flexibility in any direction, puncture resistance, capacity to absorb and transmit moisture, breathing and insulation properties, lasting and moulding and the ability to perform under extreme conditions of cold, heat and moisture. 'It is impossible', said Mr Galperin, 'to single out any one of leather's many attributes as being the most important. Its greatest virtue has to be the unparalleled combination of physical properties. When you couple these with its beauty and aesthetic values, it is truly a unique material.' Nevertheless, tanners continue to work hard to enhance leather's natural characteristics still further, creating articles that will perform well under the most adverse conditions. Development was centred on improving waterproofness, lightweightness, scuff resistance, thermal sensitivity, washability, stretchability, softness, shape retention and eco-friendliness. Sadesa are active in this area, producing, for instance, a soccer boot leather called Weatherproof TM which stays lightweight throughout an entire game while maintaining high breathability and retaining its permanent softness once dry. There is also Ultra Light Technology TM leather which is up to 15% lighter without compromising strength or durability, High Abrasion Leather TM for children's footwear and tennis shoe toe caps, and Thermico TM which helps to regulate foot temperature. Thermico incorporates micro capsules which absorb and release heat by changing their state from solid to liquid and vice versa, reducing or increasing temperature between 3-9°F, depending on the application. The effect is to help reduce perspiration, foot moisture and heat discomfort spots. The technology came out of NASA research and its application to leather was jointly developed with Frisby Technologies. Sport Wash TM is a fully machine washable leather which maintains the same look and softness after washing while Skinfit TM, developed with DuPont, provides a perfect fit for feet. It is up to 25% more stretchable than normal leather, is supersoft and available in waterproof and washable versions. It has to be backed by Lycra or an equivalent stretchable backing material. Earth Friendly is a leather tanned without chrome or heavy metals, azo dyestuffs, ozone depleting substances, DMF or products derived from any endangered species listed under CITES. Blow-up Leather is a Sadesa development which provides a thicker, high quality leather from a thin one, at the same time improving mechanical and comfort qualities. The effect is achieved using a mostly closed-cell foam with elastomer characteristics such as polyurethane, polybutadiene, chloroprene rubber or acrylates which is impregnated into the leather. The closed cells have a microscopic diameter and are filled with an environmentally friendly gas or air. The technology is suitable for both grain leathers and splits. Mr Galperin said the impetus for change and the development of new leathers was coming from consumers who were demanding better fit and performance. High breathability was very important as were softer and softer leathers which still provided proper support and high abrasion resistance. Leathers with warmer, richer, permanently durable handle were gaining a lot of attention at the lifestyle end of the footwear business. 'Enhancing leather's natural characteristics continues to be a high priority goal', said Mr Galperin. 'We are looking for utmost breathability, utmost insulation, stronger yet thinner, more versatile yet durable, completely adaptable to one's feet yet supportive.' In a paper by Richard Turner, deputy chief executive, Satra, on Materials and the Environment, he said that issues such as animal husbandry, vegetarianism, safe methods of preserving and transporting hides and pollution of water courses by tannery effluent were becoming more important. In answer to the question 'Is there any viable alternative to chrome tanning', Mr Turner said 'Yes.' while he believed that chrome wastes from tanneries were generally unharmful. However, he said that if legislation on 'ergonomics and innocuousness' were to be implemented, we probably would not be able to make children's shoes with chrome leather.

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